On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of polio a global health emergency. According to the statement, the first few months of 2014 have seen an acute rise in polio infections worldwide. The states that pose the greatest risk of exporting the virus including Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria. Furthermore, there have been outbreaks in a host of other countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The WHO statement declares the current increase in polio infections an “extraordinary event” and a public health risk to all states. To face the threat, a “coordinated international response” is critical. The WHO notes:
At end-2013, 60% of polio cases were the result of international spread of wild poliovirus, and there was increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to this spread. During the 2014 low transmission season there has already been international spread of wild poliovirus from 3 of the 10 States that are currently infected: in central Asia (from Pakistan to Afghanistan), in the Middle East (Syrian Arab Republic to Iraq) and in Central Africa (Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea). A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop this international spread of wild poliovirus and to prevent new spread with the onset of the high transmission season in May/June 2014; unilateral measures may prove less effective in stopping international spread than a coordinated response.
One of the WHO’s recommendations is for citizens traveling abroad from these high-risk countries to seek certification that they are vaccinated for polio before any foreign travel. This marks the most extreme action the international organization has taken on polio; according to the Associated Press, “WHO has never before issued an international alert on polio.”
While the incidence of cases in countries like Syria, Somalia, and Iraq are concerning, Pakistan has always been regarded as a high-risk country for global polio proliferation. The WHO referred to Pakistan in the past as “a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission.” Efforts to vaccinate Pakistanis against the polio virus have been met with heavy opposition by militants in the country who accuse medical personnel — particularly those doing work in tribal areas — of being clandestine U.S. agents. As the AP notes, “those suspicions stem at least partly from the disclosure that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to uncover Osama bin Laden’s hideout by trying to get blood samples from his family under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program.” The Diplomat‘s Kiran Nazish reported late last year on the conditions faced by many of these polio workers in Pakistan.
The global polio eradication effort will suffer a setback from this surge in infections worldwide. Pakistan’s neighbor, India, celebrated its third year of zero polio cases earlier this year.